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For Central Florida's growing Latino population, 'welcome workshops' are invaluable tool

"For the newcomer there is so much to figure out — housing, jobs, schools, transportation, not to mention the language and culture of your new town."

by Sandra Guzman /
In Orlando, Florida, Sami Haiman-Marrero is conducting one of her welcome workshops, or "taller de bienvenida" for Puerto Ricans and other Latin Americans who have moved to the area.courtesy of Sami Haiman-Marrero /

In 2014, Gamalier Roche was a 26-year-old newlywed with a 1-year-old son when he decided to move to Central Florida from his native Puerto Rico looking to provide a better life for his family. He left his wife and baby boy behind while he settled in his new home in Orlando. The culture shock was instantaneous.

"I had visited Orlando as a tourist and for business conferences," he said. "But living here is very different. It's the little things, like how in America life is very individualistic, people live inside their homes, and how many hours people work."

Roche began working at his cousin's print business, who suggested he attend a workshop hosted by local entrepreneur Sami Haiman-Marrero.

"That night changed my life," said Roche. "I got a crash course on America."

Roche got practical advice about rental and home prices, car insurance and good area schools. "The most important thing I realized that night was that if I didn't get a job with a good future, I would never be able to bring my wife and baby or have enough money to buy a house."

 Gamalier Roche and his family outside their home in Kissimmee, Florida. Roche attended Sami Haiman-Marrero's welcoming workshops when he moved from Puerto Rico in 2014 and found the advice invaluable. courtesy of Gamalier Roche

He took the advice to heart and landed a job with a Wisconsin-based digital and commercial printing expanding its operations in Orlando. Now 30, Roche is a floor manager and supervises nearly thirty employees. Two years ago, he closed on a fixer-upper house in Kissimmee, his wife, 5-year old and new baby boy in tow.

Roche is one of seven hundred newcomers to Central Florida who have participated in Haiman-Marrero's Talleres de Bienvenida, or welcome workshops, a volunteer initiative that the New York-born entrepreneur began in 2014.

When Haiman-Marrero hears of success stories like Roche, she wells up. "Puerto Ricans and other immigrants are here to work hard, all they need is information and opportunity," she said.

Central Florida has experienced "explosive growth" in the last decade, according to Lizette Valario, special Assistant to Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. "The bulk are immigrants coming from Venezuela, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and of course, Puerto Rico."

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Valario was a newcomer herself three decades ago when she arrived in Orlando from Venezuela; she describes the city at the time as a sleepy village. "People looked at you weird if you spoke Spanish, it was so rare," she said.

But that has changed.

According to 2016 Census figures released last year, there were more than 400,000 Latinos in Orange County, accounting for 30 percent of the overall population. In one year alone, from 2015 to 2016, the county's Latino population went up by 4.5 percent. In the last decade, Florida has seen an influx among communities such as Venezuelans leaving deteriorating conditions in their country and Puerto Ricans seeking employment amid the island's prolonged recession.

After Hurricane Maria devastated the island last September, more than 200,000 went to Florida, including the Orlando area. With the influx of hurricane refugees, the Talleres de Bievenida are in higher demand. Haiman-Marrero held three emergency workshops in the last months of 2017 with three more planned for this year.

"It's scary and overwhelming to move to a new place," said Haiman-Marrero. "For the newcomer there is so much to figure out, housing, jobs, schools, transportation, not to mention the language and culture of your new town. It's also important to empower them with information so that they don't get fleeced, especially in finding homes."

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Haiman-Marrero moved to Florida from New York with her husband, artist Scott Marrero, in 2008. She too had experienced the challenges of being new to the state. Inspired by working with people through Urbander, her woman-owned marketing and communications company, she began hosting her crash course on America, free of charge, using her own resources and with the help of several sponsors.

She started offering three to six seminars and workshops a year in 2014 in venues such as Orange Country libraries, FTC College in Kissimmee and Calvario City Church, among others, which all donate the space.

Along with her friend Jackie Mendez, Haiman-Marrero raises $10,000 to $15,000 annually to cover educational materials, lunch for attendees, the production of a TV spot and a media buy.

The workshops cover the gamut — from being on time and the importance of RSVPing, to tips on personal appearance and apparel, resume writing and places to learn English. She also encourages participants to register to vote and gives them a list of government agencies as well as names and contact information for local, state and national representatives.

 Engineers Francisco Birriel and Sandra Marrero Martinez came to Orlando from Puerto Rico shortly after Hurricane Maria. After his job gave him a transfer, they are settling here. courtesy of Sandra Marrero Martinez

Sandra Marrero Martinez, 29, and a civil engineer, is one of the recent participants. She left Caguas, Puerto Rico a month after the devastating hurricane. Her baby, Sebastián, was two months old and ready for his first set of immunizations, but she could not find a facility to get him vaccinated.

"I was desperate," she said. "New reports were alerting people about rampant infections and I panicked and took a plane to Orlando where my in-laws own a condo."

With her baby immunized and more settled, she went to the local library and saw a sign for the workshops.

"I am so glad that I went — there are so many things here that are different," she said, even learning little details like all cars along the street have to be parked in the same direction, "or else you get a fine." She also learned about charter schools, which were new to her.

As the fast-growing metro area continues to welcome newcomers, Haiman-Marrero has begun teaching cultural competency workshops to small businesses owners, local governments and companies to help educate employers about Latin American culture and customs.

"It's a two-way street — when a community is strong, businesses thrive," said Haiman-Marrero."So it's a win-win for all."

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